Thanks to katy who sent this in this morning; she poses an interesting point that we tend to take for granted the idea that every woman's vote is her own to cast as she will.
Yesterday, I acted as a scrutineer for the Greens at a polling booth in the Epsom electorate. We were in a church and the voting stations were extremely close to each other, perhaps 30cm apart. Certainly close enough that you could look over your neighbour's shoulder. It was a busy polling booth (1250 people voted here in 2005) and while there were plenty of staff busy giving out papers and stickers, none of the paid staff was taking responsibility for ensuring that we could vote in peace and privacy.
Like many people I spent months and months campaigning for this election and one of the assumptions that I always made was that the polling booth would provide people the space to vote alone and in peace. However, it all felt quite undignified, with friends chatting and looking over each other's shoulders as people cast their vote, and I was sorry for this.
The more serious issue, however, was that a situation was created where women in particular did not have the privacy to cast a secret vote. The National Party scrutineer (a woman) and I saw time and time again men (fathers, partners) standing behind women in the polling stations as they voted. The National Party scrutineer challenged the polling booth manager to provide a voting environment where privacy was possible, especially for women, but the situation did not improve and it was up to us to repeatedly draw attention to people talking or voting in groups.
On one occasion, after we had drawn the attention of the polling booth manager to two people conferring, I overheard this senior, paid official say to the voters, "Don't talk - the scrutineers are watching".
The moral of the story?
1. We can't assume that polling stations are safe places for women; this one wasn't. This was not a space where one could be certain that their vote was secret, on the contrary, it was a space where we saw men monitoring the voting of women. When this was pointed out to the person responsible for the booth it was not taken seriously.
2. Scrutineers make a difference. By responding to the situation, the National Party scrutineer and I did force some small improvements.
3. Please act as a scrutineer in the next election.